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Preparing for a Hesitant Return of Fans

Critical Steps to Helping COVID Wary Fans Feel Confident About Returning to the Stands


Lisa Mukavitz, Banner Health

Dave Almy, ADC Partners

COVID is changing everything, and we’ve adapted admirably. For the most part, we’ve worn our masks, practiced social distancing, and adopted rigorous hand washing that would make our grade school teachers proud. While it’s too early to tell whether these changes are temporary to this moment or represent long term, irrevocable shifts, it’s clear that every facet of society is transforming.


Sports represent one of the most profound areas of change. With games being played in empty stadiums and inside “bubbles”, fans are experiencing the games they love in distant ways no one ever anticipated. COVID will clearly be an impact for the foreseeable future, but the assumption by many in sports business is that pent up demand to see games in person will eventually drive people back to stadiums and arenas in droves.


But will this be the case? Not if Accenture’s COVID-19 Consumer Pulse Research findings are to be believed. When people were asked about their comfort level returning to public places, sport events ranked dead last, tied with concerts and bars. Only 16% indicated comfort in going to a game in the next 2 months, a number that improves to only 20% in the next 6 months.

For sports leagues and teams, this lingering reticence to return should be cause for enormous concern. While rights fees and media dollars make up the bulk of their revenue, sports businesses rely on fans to not only help fill their coffers, but to also to create the atmosphere that makes those rights fees and media dollars so significant.


With fans clearly hesitant to return for the foreseeable future, sports business operators need to develop strategies designed to make fans feel confident about returning to the stands. Doing so could reduce the time it takes for fans to feel comfortable being in-person to watch their favorite teams play. Two categories of protocols are essential for sports business operators to consider: operations and communications.


Operational protocols are the most easily understood as they involve everything to do with maintaining a sanitized environment and managing crowds to decrease COVID spread. A partial list of these operational protocols include:

  • Facility Sanitizing: Includes active sanitizing (e.g. extensive cleanings and disinfecting of a facility before each use), and passive opportunities (e.g. increasing the number of visible hand washing stations).

  • Fan Management: Limiting the number of fans who are allowed in the facility, and then staggering entry to mitigate crowding (e.g. lower bowl enters at a designated time period, upper bowl at another.)

  • Use of PPE: Requiring masks for all attendees and outfitting all employees with the necessary protective gear.

  • Fan Interaction: Random temperature screenings and developing processes for handling non-complying guests. Again, many of these operational protocols are familiar and are already being implemented at sports venues around the world.

The second set of protocols, those having to do with communications, are perhaps lower in profile than their operational counterparts, but are equally important to creating an environment where fans can feel comfortable.

  • Effective Messaging: Teams should create concise messaging regarding how they will create a safe environment for their fans. As discussed, a broad array of operational protocols is critical, but their effectiveness is mitigated if fans aren’t aware of them or don’t understand them. As a result, a carefully conceived messaging strategy will play a key role.

  • Pervasive Visibility: A team’s operational efforts cannot be left to passively suggest safety. Rather, they should be rolled up into a highly visible campaign that fans will recognize throughout their visit. Ideally, this campaign’s “brand” will be presented in every touch point with fans (signs, announcements, employee apparel, etc.) to continually foster a sense of reassurance.

  • Empathic Leadership: In an environment of stress and concern, effective leadership is essential. Team leaders should play a highly visible role in acknowledging (not avoiding) fan concerns and highlighting how they (and the team) are working to create a safe place for them to visit.

The effects of COVID will unfortunately linger even after a vaccine is released and life begins to return to a sense of what it was. And while fans are eager to return to stadia and arenas, there will be hesitancy to do so. To avoid the economic blow this uncertainty will bring, and to support consumers’ sense of safety, sports business operators must effectively coordinate their operational and communications response.


Lisa Mukavitz is the System AVP Orthopedics and Neurosciences at Banner Health, the nation’s largest non-profit hospital system.


Dave Almy is a Principal of ADC Partners, a San Francisco Bay Area-based agency that assists sports leagues, teams, and clubs improve business performance.

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